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Understanding Preferred Pronouns and Gender Identity in the workplace

With social media and social change evolving at speed and on a global scale, progressive companies and departments are compelled to reconsider their communication and interaction styles to keep up with the pace.

Source: WiBA Masterclass Presentation owned by Micaela Desmet
Being cognizant of the ever-changing current environment can be a challenge, but even small adjustments and considerations can go a very long way.

Just a few years ago, a discussion on pronoun and sexual orientation preferences was likely foreign to many. These days it’s a very necessary conversation for the business community. Some understanding is required if we are to create respectfully inclusive working environments.


What’s Happening?

Things have changed quickly. Just a few years ago, the only two genders that were generally recognised were men and women. Widely accepted pronouns were he, she, and their variations. But this is no longer the case.


Individuals now have the freedom and space to decide what pronouns they’d like others to use when referring to them. This means that individuals can state their pronoun preferences.


He/him/his

She/her/hers

They/them/theirs


However, it gets more complex. Some may prefer not to be called any of these conventional terms and may prefer something different to what has been dictated by social and cultural norms.


Ze/zir or Fe/fir.


Individuals can also choose to state their sexual orientation as part of their identity. Sexual orientation and gender are not the same thing. Gender is internal – how an individual sees themself. Sexual orientation is about the people they’re attracted to.


The “LGBTQ+” label refers to sexual orientation. It excludes CIS individuals (whose personal identity and gender corresponds with their born gender) and includes:


Source: WiBA Masterclass Presentation owned by Micaela Desmet

L – Lesbian: a woman that is attracted to other women.

G – Gay: any individual attracted to another individual of the same gender (across the spectrum).

B – Bisexual (or pansexual): an individual attracted to more than one of the other gender identities.

T – Transgender: those that identify with a different gender to the one assigned at birth. This does not

necessarily refer to those that have transitioned.

Q – Queer: an umbrella term for anyone whose sexual orientation/gender isn’t what they were

assigned at birth. Because this word originally had negative connotations, using it can be tricky and

depends on who you’re speaking to and how they feel about it.

Questioning: an individual that questions their orientation/identity and will eventually decide where

they fit in.


The + symbol represents the room made for all other members that align themselves with the LGBTQ

community but aren’t necessarily committed or confined to one of the above.


Then, there’s room for other options; including:

Intersex (biological): those born with different anatomy/chromosome patterns that aren’t typically

male or female.

Asexual: those with no desire for sex and no sexual attraction to anyone but are still capable of love

and affection.


Pronouns do not depend on sexual identity. An individual that identifies as lesbian can prefer the pronouns “they/them/theirs”, even if they identify as a woman. Those that identify as CIS individuals but support those in the LGBTQ+ community are known as allies.


Why Does it Matter?

Today, it’s more important than ever for you, your company, and/or your department to be inclusive and non-discriminatory. It’s essential to be respectful of others’ choices and preferences, leaving space for everyone without judgement or prejudice.


Being inclusive and respectful can also makes an enormous impact on your company. When members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies feel seen and respected, the result is job satisfaction. There is another important added benefit – happy employees are more productive.


In addition, it puts your enterprise on a global platform of progression.


Did you know?

· 46% of LGBTQ+ people are closeted in the workplace (by choice or feeling forced).

· 1 in 5 have been told to dress in a manner more aligned to what’s generally acceptable.

· 31% feel unhappy at work because of their identity.

· 53% have heard targeted jokes.


How Can Your Company Be More Inclusive?

Source: WiBA Masterclass Presentation owned by Micaela Desmet

Not everyone will agree with or understand personal pronouns and sexual identity preferences. The workplace will continue to evolve as we all become more educated and aware.


There are however first steps that every company can make starting with changing the language and terms that you use in multiple areas.

  • Emails – instead of assuming that the reader identifies as a he, she, Mr, Ms, ma’am or sir; use something more inclusive. For a formal introduction, you could simply start with, “Good day.” You might also try:

· Dear homeowner (not “Dear sir or madam”)

· Dear HR Manager (not “Dear sir or madam”)

· Dear Amy Gibbs (not “Dear Ms Gibbs”)

In your email signature, you may include your preferred pronouns too.

  • Presentations – when addressing a conference or a meeting, opt to open up with something along the lines of, “Good morning, everyone” as opposed to “ladies and gentlemen”.

  • Daily speech – avoid gender-based expressions (e.g., “It’s a man’s world” or “pull up your big-girl panties”) and be aware of not referring to others as he and she if those aren’t their preferred pronouns. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, opt for they/them or simply ask what they’d prefer.

  • Quotes – use gender-neutral language to address your recipient as well as to refer to individuals or groups of people within the quote.

  • Dress code – be careful to have rules around the type of clothes, makeup, and hairstyle that are workplace appropriate without limiting these to being for men or women.

  • Contracts – use gender-neutral terms to address your recipient as well as to refer to individuals within the contract.

  • Policies and procedures – again, use gender-neutral language to address your recipient as well as to refer to people in your policies and procedures.

  • Zoom screen name – consider including your own preferred personal pronouns to encourage everyone else to do the same.

  • Marketing, advertising, and social media – ensure that your online and commercial presence becomes as inclusive and non-discriminatory as possible.

It is also vital that you never “out” someone, which means revealing somebody else’s personal preferences or sexual orientation for them. Every person has the sole and exclusive right to reveal this if, when, and how they want to do it.

Source: WiBA Masterclass Presentation owned by Micaela Desmet

WiBA Masterclasses

This important topic was covered in the WiBA masterclass of August 2022. Other recent masterclasses have discussed marginalisation in the workplace, protecting your brand, and the A to Z of a pitch deck.





To be part of equally-important and –relevant discussions for professionals around the world, become a WiBA member today. Follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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